An uncertain revolution: why the rise of a genetic model of mental illness has not increased tolerance

Soc Sci Med. 2008 Nov;67(9):1370-81. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.07.007. Epub 2008 Aug 12.


This study uses the 2006 replication of the 1996 General Social Survey Mental Health Module to explore trends in public beliefs about mental illness in the USA. Drawing on three models related to the framing of genetic arguments in popular media, the study attempts to address why tolerance of the mentally ill has not increased, despite the growing popularity of a biomedical view. The key to resolving this paradox lies in understanding how genetic arguments interact with other beliefs about mental illness, as well as the complex ideational implications of genetic frameworks. Genetic arguments have contingent relationships with tolerance. When applied to schizophrenia, genetic arguments are positively associated with fears regarding violence. Indeed, in this regard, attributing schizophrenia to genes is no different from attributing schizophrenia to bad character. However, when applied to depression, genetic arguments are positively associated with social acceptance. In addition to these contingencies, genetic explanations have discontinuous relationships with beliefs regarding treatment. Although genetic arguments are positively associated with recommending medical treatment, they are not associated with the perceived likelihood of improvement. The net result of these assorted relationships is little change in overall levels of tolerance over time. Because of the blunt nature of the forces propelling a biomedical view--including the growing popularity of psychiatric medications--altering beliefs about the etiology of mental illness is unlikely, on its own, to increase tolerance.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Mental Disorders / genetics*
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Public Opinion*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States